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Colts take positive step, but playoffs still no guarantee

  • By Vic Carucci NFL.com
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Rick Stewart / Getty Images
The Colts' ability to force Ben Roethlisberger into three interceptions helped them earn a road win.


PITTSBURGH -- The role doesn't fit. No matter how hard you try and wrap it around the Colts, it still has the look of an overcoat with either too much or too little material.

Staying alive for a wild-card playoff spot? That's for some other team lacking the talent or consistency to perform at an elite level. Not the Colts. Not one of the NFL's perennial front-runners. They're the ones who are chased, not chasing. By this point of the season, their only real concern is supposed to be whether they'll secure home-field advantage through the postseason.

Rick Stewart / Getty Images
Tony Dungy has led the Colts to five straight AFC South titles.
The Colts under Tony Dungy
Year Record Finish
2002 10-6 Wild-card round
2003 12-4 AFC Championship Game
2004 12-4 Divisional round
2005 14-2 Divisional round
2006 12-4 Won Super Bowl
2007 13-3 Divisional round
2008 5-4 --

But that was the Colts playing the part of the desperate team in Sunday's game against the Steelers.

"We are fighting and scratching and grinding," Peyton Manning said. "We've kind of been the underdogs the past few games and people aren't really expecting us to win, so it is a different type of football and conditions that we're playing."

Before Indianapolis even kicked off on Sunday, the Tennessee Titans had already extended their perfect season to 9-0, putting the AFC South title a little further from the Colts' reach. For the Colts, the mission was clear. Either find a way to win against the kingpins of the AFC North and in a city where their franchise hadn't done so in 40 years, or do significant damage to their hopes of merely reaching the playoffs. Playing with urgency and getting the help of a couple of fortunate bounces and Steeler miscues, the Colts managed to come away with a 24-20 victory.

At 5-4, they're in the thick of the battle for a wild-card spot. And after back-to-back wins over New England and Pittsburgh following back-to-back losses to Green Bay and Tennessee, they're comfortable with handling the new challenge of emerging from the pack rather than setting the pace.

"The one thing it does is it tells you what you need to do," tight end Dallas Clark said. "Unfortunately, we have to win a lot of games. We don't have any room for error anymore. We've kind of dug ourselves a deep, deep hole. So we come to work on Wednesday, regardless of whatever team we're preparing for, knowing exactly what we need to do."

The Colts' offense knew what it was up against Sunday: The top-ranked defense in the NFL. That meant that whatever points it generated wouldn't come easy. And they didn't.

Manning had the type of performance you once expected from him on a routine basis but now is worthy of a second look, especially against the No. 1 pass defense in the league. He threw for 240 yards and three touchdowns, and had no interceptions. As it turned out, his biggest throw -- which also was the biggest play of the game -- was a fluke. Ike Taylor deflected a pass that wound up in the hands of Reggie Wayne for a 65-yard gain and the Colts' first touchdown. Later, Taylor would deflect a second Manning throw that Wayne caught for 16 yards.

It was that kind of day for the Colts and the Steelers.

»The normally sure-handed Marvin Harrison dropped what would have been two touchdown passes.

»The Colts' run defense, which entered the game ranked 25th in the NFL, held Mewelde Moore to a mere 57 rushing yards.

»Third-and-goal from the Indianapolis 1, and rookie defensive tackle Eric Foster is there to slam the door on Moore, who already had run for a pair of 1-yard scores. That forced the Steelers to settle for a field goal to give them a 20-17 lead in the fourth quarter.

»Ben Roethlisberger throws three interceptions, and two go to cornerbacks -- Tim Jennings and Keiwan Ratliff -- starting for the Colts because of injuries while Melvin Bullitt grabs the third, after it is bobbled by two players, in the end zone as time expires.

More such unconventional performances likely will be necessary for the Colts to remain a viable force in the AFC wild-card picture. They have some soft opponents remaining on their schedule before their second encounter of the season with the Titans, who visit Indianapolis on the final week of the schedule. By then, the Titans could have home-field advantage tied up.

But the Colts could very well still be in pursuit of a postseason berth. They can certainly count on competition from a team or two in the AFC East, where the Patriots and Jets are 6-3 and the Dolphins and Bills are 5-4.

"Somewhere along the line we've got to get on a streak, and we really can't worry about everybody else," coach Tony Dungy said. "We've got to get ourselves playing better, and I think today was a step in that direction. We've got a chance now to get on a streak. We haven't been in this position all year, to get a three-game winning streak."

"I think it makes you a tougher team, playing these games when you're really battling for a wild-card position," offensive tackle Ryan Diem said. "It helps us gain confidence heading into the rest of the season that we've got a shot here to do something special."

Winning here was special. It made a statement that the Colts just might be able to recapture a little bit of the magic they once possessed in rolling to five straight division crowns and a victory in Super Bowl XLI.

However, they realize they can't allow themselves to get too giddy over the accomplishment, as rare as it might have been. Dungy preached that point in the locker room after the game.

The players seemed to get the message.

"It's big, but you've got to realize it's just a game and we've got more work to go," Clark said. "Pittsburgh's a very good team with a very good defense. They don't give you anything. They're very smart and very physical. And for us to come in an environment like this and get the win, it's positive.

"But we're kind of up and down with the positives, so we want to keep that going."

Have a question for Vic? Send it to AskVic@nfl.com, and the best ones will be answered on NFL.com.

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